By Zeke J Miller
February 5, 2015

President Barack Obama welcomed his “good friend” the Dalai Lama to Washington Thursday in an unprecedented joint appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast.

The annual event marked the first time that Obama and the Tibetan leaders have appeared together in public, after three closed-door meetings over the past five years. It took place despite Chinese government objections to any world leader meeting with the religious leader they consider a dissident.

Obama and the Dalai Lama did not directly meet at the event, but appeared to acknowledge each other from their tables. White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett sat at the Dalai Lama’s table in a sign of support.

In his remarks, Obama called the Dalai Lama “a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion and who inspires us to speak up for the freedom and dignity of all human beings.”

The breakfast, held at the Washington Hilton, is an ecumenical but largely Christian event bringing together about 3,300 evangelical and other faith leaders. NASCAR star Darrell Waltrip delivered the keynote remarks.

“There aren’t many occasions that bring his Holiness under the same roof as NASCAR,” Obama joked. “This may be the first … but God works in mysterious ways.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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